Saturday, November 17, 2007

A generational shift in evangelical Christianity?

[Cross-posted from my "secular" blog, [A]mazed and [Be]mused. By the way, my university-aged son has just joined me as a co-blogger over there, and I'm feeling pretty pleased about it!]
Evangelicals are increasingly motivated by a broader range of social concerns, from disease in Africa, to the environment, to racial reconciliation. And they want to be a witness to these values instead of a tool in the power games of others.
Newsweek. The last sentence of the quote aptly characterizes where American evangelicals have positioned themselves for the past twenty-five years:  as a tool in the power games of others.

(Perhaps I should speak of "Christianists" — the term by which Andrew Sullivan distinguishes this politicized group from other evangelicals.)

The mainstream US media has recently published a couple of articles hailing the arrival of a kinder, gentler evangelicalism. The New York Times reported:
The founding generation of leaders like [Jerry] Falwell and [James] Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene [either dying or retiring]. … Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions.

There are many related ways to characterize the split:  a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty.
In my experience, concern for the environment is also taking root among younger evangelicals.

I hope Newsweek and the Times are right to suppose that this represents a generational shift. I'm not quite convinced yet, but I'm hopeful.

There are two trends to consider. The Times is alert to one of the trends, which involves very large, "seeker sensitive" churches.

The church pastored by Bill Hybels averages 20,000 in attendance each week. To maintain a more personal touch, it makes use of 2,600 small groups. The Times comments:
Hybels, founder of the Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, is very possibly the single-most-influential pastor in America; in the last 15 years, his Willow Creek Association has grown to include more than 12,000 churches. Many invite their staff members and lay leaders to participate by telecast in Willow Creek’s annual leadership conferences, creating a virtual gathering of tens of thousands. …

As his stature has grown, Hybels has seemed more willing to irk Christian conservative political leaders — and even some in his own congregation. He set off a furor a few years ago when he invited former President Bill Clinton to speak at one of his conferences. And the Iraq war has brought into sharp relief Hybels’s differences with conservatives like Dobson.

… On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Hybels preached a sermon called “Why War?” Laying out three approaches to war — realism, just-war theory and pacifism — he implored members of his congregation to re-examine their own thinking and then try to square it with the Bible. In the process, he left little doubt about where he personally stood. He called himself a pacifist.
The other trend is more of a grass roots phenomenon. There is a rising interest in something called the "Emergent" church. Or "movement", or "conversation" — Emergent leaders are uncomfortable being defined by labels.

The Emergent movement reminds me of the internet-driven political campaigns of Howard Dean and Ron Paul. Yes, there are identifiable leaders (e.g., Brian McLaren), but the movement as such has no hierarchy, and is not identified with any individual. It is amorphous — a concept that has spread virally — a meme.

As such, it isn't clear how much impact the Emergent movement will have on Christianity. It could self-destruct, as Howard Dean's political campaign did in 2004. On the other hand, it might represent the beginning of something new in Christianity:  a way of doing church differently in a postmodern era.

The thing to note is that these two trends, so different in approach, have similar ideals with respect to social issues. There's an amusing, semi-serious description of the seven layers of Emergence on a Christianity Today blog. Consider the seventh "layer":
Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church? … To their amazement, [the article's hypothetical congregation] discovers significant swaths of the Bible (such as the Pentateuch, prophets, gospels, and epistles) talk about justice, poverty, and compassion. The church begins to speak about social issues and participates in efforts to combat poverty, AIDS, and global injustice.
This paragraph takes a bit of a cheap shot at the Hybels model of doing church — "Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church?" Emergent folks tend to be critical of the megachurch model. Nonetheless, the paragraph's emphasis on poverty, AIDS, and global injustice is consistent with the mission objectives of Hybels's church.

In the convergence of these two trends, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. The reader may note an approving nod to the Emergent movement in the name of this blog, Emerging From Babel.


Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for this, Stephen. I found this post really uplifting.

By the way, one of the first people to write about the emerging church was Dan Kimbell, who's close friends with Rick Warren. Rick wrote a series of comments in Dan's "The Emerging Church". There's obvious tension in approach, with Rick often taking the tone of a older 'father' trying to keep Dan on track, but what comes through is their common commitment to the gospel as soemthing that should make a difference in the world here.

James Pate said...

Although I support Bush, I think that there are a variety of political positions that can be derived from the Bible. I'm also glad that there are religious options for people who hunger after God and yet do not believe that GWB is infallible.

At the same time, who really is to say that the old generation of evangelicals ignored poverty? Pat Robertson has Operation Blessing. I've heard Focus on the Family programs about helping the poor. Moreover, maybe things like family values and sexual morality can help alleviate the problem of poverty.

Phil Sumpter said...


the post from Crescenet is spam. It's what caused me to start using a code for posts. I got the same one.


I think that's an important point. These debates can be so easily polarised that the opposition becomes demonised. I think it's important to remember that truely loving one's neighbour requires more than the theology that one should do so, and can take place even where the explictie theology is lacking.